If you're currently living in Japan, chances are you're already grinding your way though Final Fantasy XIII from Square Enix. Unfortunately, the rest of us have been left waiting for the English-language version, which is due for release on March 9. To ease our collective pain, Square Enix invited us to go hands-on with the final build of the English version on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 at a special event in London.
The event kicked off with a screening of the full intro movie to the game, which showcased the high-quality cinematics and introduced the main characters. The movie began with the camera panning through a deep valley covered in lush vegetation. Three birdlike creatures then flew through the valley, up into the sky, to reveal a vast airborne city, filled with futuristic-looking buildings and vehicles. The screen faded to black and cut to a close-up of the barrel of a gun, which was being held by the main female character, Lightning. The detail in the animation was astonishing, and we could pick out every pink hair on her head. The movie then cut to an underground chamber, the city of Cocoon, where the early stages of the game take place. A huge flying vehicle powered by glowing blue engines swooped across the screen, revealing another female character, Vanille, dressed in a hooded cloak. We were treated to a beautiful scene showing the main characters of the game riding atop a dragonlike creature in a cloudy sky. Next the movie cut between several scenes, showing the various summons in the game. We were able to pick out Shiva and Odin's attacks, before the video cut into an action montage, which ended with Vanille gazing into a valley, complete with giant creatures lumbering across the screen.
While watching Final Fantasy cinematics is always a treat, thankfully the preview event also allowed us to play various sections of the game, the first of which took place in the underground city of Cocoon. Taking control of Lightning, we explored the city, traipsing down narrow walkways. This section of the game was relatively linear. As we ventured down a walkway, every few minutes we would encounter a save point, a floating orb (which is a futuristic reimagining of the simple treasure chest), or a group of enemies. Unlike in Final Fantasy XII, the enemy encounters took place on a separate battle screen, which resembled the surrounding environment. There are no random battles in the game, and enemies can clearly be seen onscreen before you encounter them. However, the walkways in Cocoon were too small for us to squeeze past enemies, and we inevitably ended up fighting everyone that got in our way.
Fortunately, battles are lots of fun, thanks in part to the new battle system. It doesn't rewrite the rule book on turn-based combat but instead offers a faster version of the active time bar system from previous Final Fantasy games. The ATB is now split into segments. Each segment corresponds to an action, and the number of segments indicates how many actions you can chain together. Some actions, such as a simple attack, may use only one segment of the bar, while larger attacks may require two or more segments. Because we were playing with Lightning at a relatively low level, her ATB contained only two segments, so we could chain just two attacks together. As characters level up, they gain more segments in their ATB, allowing them to put together more devastating combos. Attacks in the command menu are split into two sections: manual and auto battle. Manual allows you to pick different attacks to queue up in your ATB timeline, while auto battle selects the most appropriate commands and automatically fills the ATB. We found the auto battle option useful during the early stages of the game, where enemies are relatively weak, and we can see this feature coming into its own when grinding character levels later in the game. We also found the ability to stagger our opponents useful. Staggering is activated by attacking enemies repeatedly, which increases an orange bar above their head. The bar is constantly decreasing, and only sustained attacks are enough to push it to the top and stagger an enemy. Once staggered, enemies took double damage from our attacks, while their attacking power decreased.
Continuing through Cocoon, we took control of Snow and Vanille. The game alternates between the characters, who are all on a different path through the city. Each of the characters specializes in a different weapon. Lightning uses a gun sword called Blade Edge, Vanille uses a bizarre fishing rod weapon, and Snow simply attacks with his fists. New weapons are available to buy throughout the game, though we were told that the best way to enhance a character's attack power is to upgrade his or her existing weapons. Different types of organic and mechanical items can be bought at shops, which are accessible via the many save points in the game. Not only are the items cheaper than new weapons, but they allow you to concentrate on increasing specific weapon attributes, such as attack power. Another way to power up your characters is with the crystarium system. Crystarium is accessible at any time from the main menu and lets you upgrade a character's attributes, such as magic ability, or increase a character's accessory slots . The system is similar to Final Fantasy X's sphere grid in that increasing one attribute opens up more areas to upgrade. Upgrades cost a certain number of crystarium points, but more points are awarded after each battle.
Square Enix also showed us a number of other locations from the game. We skipped ahead to a section from chapter six, titled Chain of Events. The chapter took place in a town called Palumpolum, where we took control of Vanille. This section showed us some of the stealthier elements of the game. We had to use a drainage pipe to sneak into a complex surrounded by guards. We were able to avoid battles by hiding behind boxes when enemies approached, before making a mad dash to the pipe. We could then sneak under guards, and proceed into the complex. Another chapter we saw was Nautilus City of Dreams, a theme park filled with bustling crowds and circus shows. A battle between Snow and a number of guards was taking place just outside the city, which was shown on the TV screens inside Nautilus. Finally, we skipped forward to chapter 11, to the world of Pulse. This area was much larger than earlier parts of the game and was made up of large grass-covered valleys, populated with giant dinosaur-like creatures. Getting around was made easier by a minimap to the right of the screen, showing our current position, along with any side quests that were available. Side quests are accessed via floating panels dotted across the landscape, and we were shown one that required us to hunt down a specific enemy on the map. The reward for doing so was a bunch of valuable items and access to more side quests.
After getting over the initial shock of playing a Final Fantasy game on the Xbox 360, we found it was difficult to tell the two versions apart. Both look spectacular, with the game's engine creating stunning vistas. As we walked around the environments, we could pick out all the details on our characters' clothes and see their hair floating around in the wind. Battles looked fantastic, with vibrant lighting effects filling the screen during summons. We were constantly reminded that the summons were fully rendered in real time, as it was often difficult to tell whether it was the game engine at work or a full-motion video sequence. Also of note is the lip-syncing during cutscenes. Character animations have been reworked for the English voice acting, so speech lines up perfectly. However, we noticed at this stage that the movies on the Xbox 360 suffered from more compression than on the PlayStation 3, while the Xbox 360 had an overall crisper image quality in the main game.
We're very eager to get our hands on the finished product, which is due for release on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 9. Stay tuned to GameSpot for a full review soon.